Thursday 14 December 2017

Syrians flee corpse-filled streets as troops enter

UN peace conference on brink of collapse over US-Russia dispute

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan

Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in BEIRUT

Syrian government forces pushed their way into Douma yesterday after weeks of siege and shelling.

Fleeing residents told of corpses in the streets of the town near the capital Damascus. They said hundreds of people were escaping as government forces swept the streets in search of rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

They reported many bodies buried under the rubble of houses in the town of half a million. It was not possible to immediately verify the reports.

Meanwhile, a conference called in Geneva by special envoy Kofi Annan to end the Syrian crisis appeared on the brink of failure as it opened yesterday, with the US and Russia still divided over a role for Mr Assad in a transition government.

Mr Annan seemed confident of his plan a few days ago, but Russia has refused to back a provision that would call for Mr Assad to step down to make way for a unity government, a stance that could scuttle the entire deal.

The envoy warned the permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the US -- that if they fail to act at the talks hosted by the UN at its European headquarters in Geneva they face a crisis of "grave severity" that could spark violence across the region and provide a new front for terrorism.

"History is a sombre judge and it will judge us all harshly if we prove incapable of taking the right path today," Mr Annan said.

Abdullah, 50, said he and his five children left Douma yesterday morning. "I saw at least three bodies on a street corner, some houses were destroyed, others were on fire. Only a few people remained inside the city. Those who can, leave," he said by telephone from a nearby town.

"I saw a body on the side of the street and dogs were gathering around it, it was really horrible. . . we are all living as refugees inside our country."

Abdullah left in a convoy of 200 people from his neighbourhood. He said eight people were packed into each car.

They passed through four checkpoints where soldiers in "full gear" eyed their identity cards before allowing them through.

Syrian forces have used similar tactics countrywide, activists say, of long sieges and shelling before raids.

A 16-month uprising has morphed into a fight between rebels and the government which labels armed and unarmed dissidents as "terrorists".

A senior US official at the Geneva conference -- speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations -- said the "discussions remain challenging. We're continuing to work this today, but we need a plan that is strong and credible. We may get there, we may not."

Abo Omar, another resident, said rebels withdrew from Douma on Friday night after an intensive 10-day government offensive.

"How can the rebels continue fighting with limited guns, facing tanks and helicopters? Now Assad's army is in control of the town," he said, adding that hundreds had been arrested.

"We are calling on the Red Cross and the [Syrian] Red Crescent to go inside the town and remove the bodies. Some of the bodies have started to decay," said Abo Omar.

Syrian forces fired mortar bombs at major cities yesterday, activists said.

Sunday Independent

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